The following paper was submitted to The Kurdish Project by Hastiar Sheikhani. Submit your own op-ed, paper, or personal story on the Sykes-Picot Agreement as we commemorate 100 years of the Agreement here.
It seems that the centuries-long dream of Kurdish statehood is closest to realization now. Especially with the mighty heroic victories of the Peshmerga and Shervans in South and West Kurdistan over the militants of the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), more often we hear people using phrases like referendum, independence, and separation. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Kurds found themselves dissolved in an imperial/feudal system, belonging to the Turkish Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. After the spread of nationalism in the region, some multiple Kurdish ethno-national movements came into existence, none of which resulted in any long-lasting sort of autonomy.
The Kurds lacked unity and diplomats, two main reasons for the failure of their attempts for statehood. General Sherif Pasha, a Kurdish diplomat who successfully drafted the proposal for the establishment of a Kurdish independent state that was approved in the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, was one of few well-educated Kurdish diplomats of his time. This was later prevented by the attempts of Kemal Ataturk and his diplomacy to the western powers in Lausanne Treaty in 1923, in which the borders of the Republic of Turkey were stretched to include contemporary North Kurdistan.
1920s – 1960s: A Brief History
Between 1922 and 1924, a Kingdom of Kurdistan existed under the rule of Sheikh Mahmud Barzinji, which was disintegrated by the British mainly because of ill policies and strategies and personal interest and greed of Melik Mahmud. Roughly the same reasons would apply to the failure of Simko Shikak for self-rule in the area around Urmiye in Iran in the 1920s.
In 1927, under the supreme command of General Ihsan Nuri Pasha, the Kurds declared the Republic of Ararat near today’s Agri region, which was initially backed by the British. This was also suppressed by Turkey in 1930. In 1946, probably the best one, Qazi Muhammad and his companions founded a Kurdish republic in Mahabad, Iran. Although it lasted only 11 months, it was backed by the Soviet Union initially, and by Kurds from Iraq, namely Mulla Mustafa Barzani and his followers.
The Barzanis led the Kurds in Iraq in their two wars in the 1960s against the Iraqi government in Baghdad. This time, the Kurds had a slightly different approach. They used both military force and diplomatic negotiations to achieve autonomy. These attempts also failed in 1975 with the Algiers Agreement between Iraq and Iran, in which Iraq promised to meet the demands of the Iranians in return for abandoning the Kurdish rebels. Finally, as a result of the 1991 popular and military revolts in the Kurdish region of Iraq, the Kurds with the help of the United States won an autonomous region in northern Iraq in which they enjoyed de facto independence.
In the following paragraphs, I will aim to analyze these failures to obtain Kurdish statehood according to three levels of analysis, the system and state level, the domestic and societal level, and the individual leadership level. I will use these failures as case studies for the analyses and will not emphasize the history much.
Kurdish Tribes Separated by Ottomans
Ottoman Kurdistan, similar to all other territories of the empire, was used in any way to promote Ottoman rule. In a feudal or imperial system, the people that are being ruled do not think of any autonomy or independent actions. They only think of how to benefit from the ruler and how to remain accepted and liked by the emperors and rulers, in this case the Sultan. The Kurds, along with the Balkans and other groups that the Ottomans ruled, were used to fight the enemies of the empire, the Russians for instance. On the local level, the Kurds were used to fight the Christians, Assyrians and Armenians. If not so even, the Ottoman rulers would incite one Kurdish tribe against the other in order to keep their powers balanced by each other, so that they do not think of any sort of revolt or independence. This tactic managed to separate Kurdish tribes and create rivalry and thus tension between them. And since the Ottomans ruled for a long time, these tribes became long term enemies and the rivalry became part of the culture.
Losing the Dream of Kurdish Statehood due to Disunity
After the break down of the Ottoman Empire, the British were aiming to establish a Kurdish state in today’s southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. However, this seems to have been very difficult. The Kurdish tribes and groups in different parts of Kurdistan were not united. One of the very rare Kurdish diplomats at that time, General Sherif Pasha, a Kurdish representative to the British ambassador in Paris, was disowned by the two Kurdish clubs that were active then in Istanbul. As a result of this and the divisions between them, Sharif Pasha resigned. The Kurds lost a strong voice of theirs in the west, namely in the countries of the colonial powers.
A second difficulty that Britain had was the lack of necessary troops to protect the then-to-be Kurdish state. Keeping in mind that southeast Turkey was a French colony and not British, the British found it uneasy to commit troops to the region because of their suspicions.
The lack of Kurdish diplomats and their tribal divisions resulted in their loss of the chance to establish a Kurdish state. The Kurdish national movement arrived late. By the time the Kurds were acting as Kurds and asking for a state, through the Henry McMahon (British High Commissioner in Egypt) and Hussein (Sherif of Mecca) correspondence, the British had already “promised” the Arabs of the Gulf and Middle East independence from Ottoman rule in their desired lands, which included Iraq. The British appointed one of Hussein’s sons, Faisal al Hashemi as king of Iraq.
At the same period, the revolts of Simko Shikak and Ihsan Nuri Pasha were taking place in East and North Kurdistan respectively. The two leaders did not cooperate with each other. Ihsan Nuri Pasha had reportedly suggested cooperation. At this time, the Turks were arming Shikak in Urmiye to fight the Qajars, Armenians, and Assyrians. And the Russians were supporting the Qajars. The British refused to back him because he had somehow supported Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji’s revolt by providing sanctuary for 40 of his relatives.
For the Kurds in Mahabad in 1946, Qazi Muhammad and his companions declared their Republic of Mahabad with the backing of the Soviet Union. The Soviet were aiming to pressure Iran by supporting insurgents in Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, in which it succeeded. After 11 months, Iran agreed to found a common Iranian-Soviet oil company and under Western pressure, the Soviet withdrew all the troops they had deployed after the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941. This left the Kurds without any support, which eventually led to the failure of the Kurdish republic.
Tribal Politics of the Kurdish People
If we now travel to the domestic/societal reasons for the failure of these attempts, we would find the most apparent and influential reason is the tribal politics of the Kurdish people. Tribal leaders do not accept the power of anybody other than themselves, a reason why Sheikh Mahmud Barzinji and Simko Shikak’s attempts failed. As Sheikh Mahmud’s power was growing, ruling other tribes of the area like Hamawand, Jaf, Jabbari, Pizhdary, and more was very difficult. Moreover, Sheikh Mahmud was a Qadiri Sheikh and had his own religious rivals, namely, the Talabany Qadiris of Kirkuk and the Naqshbandi Sheikhs of Biyare and Tawela. Another characteristic of most of the Kurdish rebellions in the 20th century is that they were affiliated with religion. The leaders were all Islamic Mullahs. The west of course was not in favor of having an extra Sunni state for the Kurds in the Middle East.
Sheikh Mahmud, A Powerful but Greedy Leader
Sheikh Mahmud had somehow adopted communist ideology because of Russian influence. This was not favored by the Aghas of his territory. The Aghas wanted to keep their lands and belongings and keep control over their workers. Thus, communist ideologies would not be friendly to their desires and goals. This was one more reason why Sheikh Mahmud lost local support. As for Simko, the tribal leaders were only supporting him for economic benefits. They preferred the welfare of their own crops and lands rather than getting political autonomy. For the Republic of Mahabad, Qazi Muhammad had adopted ideas of social justice and socialism. Similarly, this did not serve the interests of the Aghas and Sheikhs.
One issue that almost all Kurdish leaders faced was their own greed and their own ill tribal policies. When both Ihsan Nuri Pasha in Agri and Simko Shikak in Urmiye were leading rebellions, one reason why they did not cooperate was that each one was afraid the other would dominate. Each one wanted to be the king. Moreover, Shikak was a brutal violent man. He attacked whatever place he wanted to control and killed anyone who stood before him. He received arms from the Turks to massacre the Assyrians and Armenians around Azerbaijan. Some accounts also claim that he had also attacked Kurds in central Kurdish region of today’s Iran. These aggressive policies were a reason why the British and Russians refused to back him later on.
Sheikh Mahmud was a powerful leader. He was powerful enough among the Kurds for the British to declare him hukumdar or governor in Sulaimani. He was given a particular territory, but he preferred to stretch his muscles too much and extend his hands until Sinne (Sanandaj). His greed and thirst for power shaped his policies and strategies and thus his stance towards the British.
Furthermore, Sheikh Mahmud’s personal ethics were religious and tribal ones. He was also a furious revolutionary man. Stories about him tell that once he got angry at the British for clubbing in Sulimani! The British had supposedly opened a club in their own area in Sulimani for drinking and dancing. Sheikh was fine with this. However, as is in the story, they had allegedly brought two Kurdish women to party with them at that club. This had supposedly angered the Sheikh and encouraged him to start his military struggle with the British.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Broken Promise to the Kurds
Since I am discussing leaders and personalities here, I feel obliged to talk about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk too. Ataturk was granted this surname because of his military victories. It means the father of Turks. He managed to convince the west about the new Turkish borders, except for Mosul, which became a part of Iraq instead. He even convinced the Kurdish rebels and leaders to fight for him, promising them a federal government for the state of Turkey in which they would have autonomy, a promise he never committed to. He secularized Turkey, abolished the Caliphate, and then abolished the Sultanate. He became the first president of the country he created. And his name remains in history forever. A leader like him, under whom everyone would unite, was what the Kurds were lacking at that time.
Kurds Need Unity, Diplomacy, and Policy to Declare Independence
In short, the two central main points I would say I want to make in this paper are that the Kurds need unity and skills, namely diplomacy and policy skills. A state is built, not declared. There are certain foundational requirements for a state to exist, most important of which being a good economic system, a strong societal foundation, and a reliable national army. For Kurdistan to exist as a state, not only we need to determine our friends and foes, but we also need to integrate into the modern multipolar Westphalian anarchic system.